Group Editor Marty Kauchak completed a wide-ranging interview with Marlo Brooke, CEO and Founder of Avatar Partners.
Halldale: Marlo, thanks for taking time to speak with Halldale. Let’s start at the strategic, overarching level. Share with us your perspectives about the state of this community, in particular, at this point of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marlo Brooke (MB): Companies and employees are thinking differently about the workplace in a post-COVID economy. As a company that specializes in immersive reality and augmented reality (AR), we have seen increased interest for virtual collaborative products that remotely connect dispersed workers. We’re also seeing that companies are considering how to optimize productivity and employee satisfaction in a virtual work environment, which also has positive implications for reducing fixed overhead costs, such as facilities. With a purely office-based workforce, whether sales increase or get worse, companies are stuck with the same overhead. Technology continues to mature to enable a socially and emotionally connected virtual workforce – and other important human factors aspects that would sustain long-term virtualization. As human beings we are social creatures, with an ingrained emotional need to connect meaningfully with others. In other words, extended reality (XR) technology should give employees realistic experiences of feeling as though they are realistically with others, in life size, with eye contact. XR can support a true energy exchange between people that promotes creativity, organization, respect, and passion for the job. Whereas Zoom and other similar video-people-in-a-box type of solutions are a short term quick-fix, they don’t address the significance of human-to-human connection. For example, Zoom doesn’t enable actual eye contact, and looking at oneself in a brady-bunch style grid naturally makes us self-conscious. We have solutions today that bridge the gap between distance and connection – providing an entire or partially remote workforce to experience the human connection that we all need, while also being accountable and present.
Halldale: What about developing these solutions?
MB: Great question. With the significantly increased need for human-factors based virtual technology, we have an overall resource shortage, even in major metropolitan areas like Southern California where we are headquartered. While this area is a mecca of gaming and virtual reality skillsets, we need a wide variety of skillsets, including effective design and storyboarding, business and performance analysis, mechanical skills, and the ability to translate procedures into high-impact virtualized solutions that support the social and emotional needs of employees. We turn to the partners in our own ecosystem to fill the gap; it does take a village. People don’t want to spend their day wearing heavy glasses to communicate with others.
Halldale: And one solution to this emerging vision?
MB: We are working with and extending our college involvement, including University of California, Irvine and Auburn University, who have highly reputable computer science curricula. We are providing students free trial licenses of SimplifyXR, our enterprise XR software development tool, so students can extend their skills beyond the basic XR languages such as Unity or Unreal, and develop true enterprise solutions that businesses need from day one – these are high-paying skillsets.
Halldale: You’ve mentioned AR and other technologies. On a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), how do you rate some of those enablers as being mature and ready for use in learning communities?
MB: In terms of virtually enabling the workforce, we’re ready now. It’s at a 10. The question is, how important is long-term, human-factors based virtualization to an organization? Companies know there is significant ROI to a remote workplace, but they may not be aware of what is available today that will not lead to “burnout” through Zoom meetings. For example, when Congress needs to converse remotely about important things with leaders located in other countries, they need to be in an environment that resembles the experience of being physically with the group of different people around a conference room table. Each person can clearly read the body language of everyone in the room and make real eye contact. Companies are no different. And the advancements in technology are making the cost of these solutions realistic for the enterprise. Conventional videos-in-a-box solutions works when you need something very quickly – COVID hit us faster than we knew it would – and because it allowed businesses to at least temporarily keep running, they appear to be a 10. However, from a true human factors proficiency, I would rate them at a 2 or 3. Our corporate enterprise Virtual Connect solution actually supports the company’s objectives of lowered overhead and increased productivity. We’ve developed a simple solution that incorporates multiple immersive reality and communication technology, including holograms, that keep remote employees satisfied with their job, motivated, connected. Solutions like these are a 10 in all categories – not just temporary facilitation – but long-term, ongoing, highly accepted employee enablement.
Halldale: You frequently mentioned ‘companies.’ Please tell us some of your specific customers in industry as well as the government, and, in particular, the military sectors.
MB: We work with the US Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, large defense suppliers and heavy industry such as medical, aerospace, and now moving into construction, vehicles and oil & gas. Philanthropy is engrained in our corporate philosophy, so we’re working with United Way Orange County [California], to provide free SimplifyXR software development licenses and training to previously homeless adults with children that are being housed by the United Way, to do our part in assisting them in becoming 100% self-sufficient over the next three years. This is a novel program for the United Way, and we’re honored to support our local Orange County Chapter. I’m excited to see what comes of this project.
Halldale: To follow up on your military business, are you able to discuss specific projects in progress?
MB: As a broad overview, we are working with XR for air, land and sea. We just finished a Mixed Reality training and job performance application – the Augmented Reality Maintenance Aid (ARMA) – using MR and the Hololens to assist technicians in completing a very complex maintenance procedure for a ship’s engine control system. We’re also working with the integration of XR with AI for intelligent performance assessments and feedback to continually improve the XR experience – and results – for the user, as well as sensor integration.
Halldale: And what any returns on investment for that US military customer?
MB: In projects we’ve done, testing shows a novice being able to perform some complex maintenance tasks at a level equivalent to a much more experienced maintainer with zero errors, the first time around. The ROI is substantial: an error in these types of procedures on ships and aircraft can cost upwards of $50K-$100K. Then there is the elimination of the cost of moving the asset out of production (lost productivity), and removing the cost and time of flying in a senior maintainer. XR is proving reductions in time to train by 80-85%. Reduction in time on task by 30-75%. The biggest win is the reduction – and often elimination – of errors. And, of course, the most non-quantifiable benefit is safety of life.
Halldale: Those are a few, impressive ROIs.
MB: Yes, and we’re also introducing Avatar CONNECT, which pays for itself in its first incident. CONNECT is used when a person working in the field – such as maintaining an elevator or oil equipment – needs help or expertise. Before COVID, a team of 2-3 people might be dispatched for a repair or assessment. With social distancing and the risk of flying, a company would rather assign only one person to go out into the field. That person may need assistance or they could be harmed if they make a mistake. CONNECT allows the remote user in the field to provide, through a phone, tablet, iPad or wearable device, a view of what he or she is seeing and have multiple or a dozen users view the same environment, annotate in 3-D on the screen, send over diagrams and other content to assist – all in real time. This speeds the time to troubleshoot and maintain. Visualization is so much more powerful than talking.
Halldale: Your interest in training and mission completion in adjacent high-risk sectors – construction and others – matches one of our evolving editorial efforts, Safety Critical Training. Share your insights about the ease of “cross fertilization” among learners in these high-risk sectors.
MB: Yes, most definitely. There are many parallel issues – and virtual solutions – that span across multiple industries. We specifically focus on ‘heavy duty’ industries, the ‘big problems’, if you will. There are a lot of opportunities to use our lessons learned that from both military and commercial, and use these for other industries to benefit everyone.
Halldale: And your forecast of how this sector may evolve in the next 12-24 months?
MB: Hardware manufacturers are keeping their fingers on the pulse of what is needed with AR. Five years ago, we had to use our own algorithms to solve difficult issues – ‘jitter’, the tendency of the overlaid virtual object to ‘drift’ off target, and how to address the real-world ‘problem’ of the application running in both light and dark environments. Now, hardware manufacturers are building important and necessary AR-enabling capability into their hardware. This will reduce the cost of development and make it easier for everyone to adopt XR into their workforce. But there is still a way to go. Ironically, I won’t mention names, but large companies that do not have a supply chain to keep up with hardware demand are actually opening the market for smaller, more innovative businesses to provide even better, lighter, higher quality hardware. Also, cyber security is a huge issue for the military. Healthcare faces a similar challenge with HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] requirements and regulations. And then there’s the ubiquitous issue: understanding the difference between prototype and production. We see a lot of isolated XR projects that don’t go anywhere, because enterprise leadership never buys off on it – the primary reason being that prototypes built in a controlled environment can’t easily scale into production. An AR prototype is not expensive, but moving an AR prototype into production when sustainment and configuration management is not considered in the up-front architecture is cost-prohibitive and risky in the long run. It’s very important that the architecture of the solution be developed up front, so there is reusability, scalability and standardization across the enterprise. We had to solve the production issues early on, internally, with the products we used to develop follow-on products for customers. We now resell that simplified product which handles things such as reuse, configuration management, and wide-scale deployment of multiple devices (SimplifyXR).